The first two years for Pitt under Head Coach Pat Narduzzi, have been mostly positive. The defensive-minded coach, though, has had to rely on the offense to be the side doing the heavy lifting.
The lack of depth and overall talent on the defense has been glaring — especially with the type of defense Narduzzi utilizes. Bringing pressure constantly without going all-out blitz. It relies on overall speed, depth to bring fresh bodies, and individual talents. All things missing from the defense.
During last season, as the injuries mounted and the defense definitely looked worse from week-to-week, I know I was among those openly musing about changing the defense to better fit the present situation. That didn’t happen. Narduzzi has a plan and his defensive coordinator, Josh Conklin agreed with him. As he said back in early November right before some game against Clemson.
Defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said the staff is trying to build a program that flourishes far beyond the outcome that plays out Saturday in Memorial Stadium, whether it’s a 50-point victory for Clemson or a 50-yard field goal by kicker Chris Blewitt that wins it for Pitt.
“Our coaching staff, they’re in,” Conklin said. “They’re in it for the long haul.”
Conklin said this season in which Pitt has fallen to 5-4 after a 5-2 start is similar to 2009 at Michigan State when Narduzzi was defensive coordinator.
Coach Mark Dantonio was 6-7 in his third season, but in the next six years, the Spartans won 65 games and three Big Ten championships.
“All of a sudden, they got the guys in the right positions and had a couple of recruiting classes, and they had a lot of success,” Conklin said. “We’re going to stay the course.”
That’s not easy for Pitt with a roster that continues to need fortification after medical issues and injuries sidelined 12 defensive players for various times. And that’s before you mention impatient fans who are wondering why a team whose coach has a reputation for defensive genius is last in the ACC in scoring defense (34.4 points) and passing defense (317.1 yards).
“Sometimes the progress that you want to see immediately is not there,” Conklin said. “But the foundation we are building in terms of resiliency and the desire that they want to be good, it’s there.”
And this is the year, we are hoping to start seeing the fruits of that plan.
That plan for the defense starts up front on the D-line. Where Charlie Partridge is now in charge. Right now, Partridge seems to be encouraged or at least being very positive about the overall potential of the defensive line. Partridge is also happy to be working at Pitt (again) under Narduzzi.
He said he likes how Narduzzi expects his coaches to work hard, but wants them to keep the job in its proper perspective.
“Some football coaches grind just to say they grind and put in hours just to say they did,” Partridge said. “We are very efficient and productive with our time, and I appreciate that because we all have families that we love. But we’re going to work.”
Partridge has plenty of that to keep him busy while looking for at least three new starters on the defensive front among the 20 players in his position group.
Ends Rori Blair and Dewayne Hendrix and tackles Jeremiah Taleni and Amir Watts have received much of the first-team work in spring practice, backed up by ends Allen Edwards, James Folston and Kaezon Pugh and tackles Keyshon Camp, Shane Roy and Mike Herndon.
“(Taleni) is definitely the guy who is on another level from those guys,” Partridge said. “Camp and Watts are battling. Roy and Herndon are battling. They’re definitely earning my trust more and more every day.”
The fact that this year, Pitt should be able to rotate the d-line players without a major drop-off will be huge. It is hard not to think that part of why Tyrique Jarrett and Shakir Soto started having injury issues in the second half of the season, was related to the volume of snaps they played.
Partridge is known as an excellent recruiter, so his ability to relate and communicate with the players as their coach clearly is helping. As the trust seems to be there.
Then there are the defensive tackle spots, where Taleni gives Partridge “a pulse on the whole group” by the way he prepares each day. Sophomore Amir Watts saw some snaps last year in his first season on campus, and redshirt junior Shane Roy has impressed Narduzzi, but redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp has been an early standout this spring.
Partridge praised the raw talent of Camp, considered by multiple recruiting sites as a four-star recruit a year ago, and Narduzzi noted a clear difference in Camp’s game.
“I don’t want to say pleasant surprise, because we saw a lot of great things out of him, [but] he lacked a little bit of motor last fall,” Narduzzi said. “The motor’s not a problem anymore. He’s got his motor going.”
Perhaps Partridge has helped with that. After three unsuccessful seasons as head coach at Florida Atlantic, he’s back with the same program where he coached from 2003-07. To Hendrix, it’s obvious his position coach has a presence about him.
“I love him,” Hendrix said. “I feel like he’s a great coach. I feel like he’s the perfect fit. That missing piece that we needed, I feel like he fills it.”
Another player that will help on the d-line is expected to be Kamonte Carter.
Carter — at 6 feet 4, 300 pounds and better known just as “Kam” — is Pitt’s only junior-college transfer in the 2017 class. He signed his letter of intent with the rest of the crop last month, but it’s not just his potential TV stardom that could set him apart.
There’s also the experience factor. Not only has he played football at this level before, albeit in the junior-college ranks, but his career started in an ironic place. Penn State was his first stop out of Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, but right around this time a year ago, after his redshirt freshman season, Carter was dismissed from the team because of an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Carter himself has no problem disclosing those now.
“Basically, I overslept a drug test,” he said. “That ended up being my third failed drug test.”
“I had a couple mess-ups early on, being young and immature, but as far as maturity and making sure I’m putting myself in the best position to be seen as a leader on the team [at Pitt], I’m putting myself in the best position for that,” Carter said. “I’ve kicked the weed, I’ve kicked everything. I’m clean. I have been for a good time now. I pride myself on that.”
He also has been told he’ll be a main character on the next season of Last Chance U, which is expected to air in July. That’ll be in between his arrival at Pitt for the summer and the start of training camp in August, when he’ll try to stand out amid a number of defensive linemen competing for playing time.
If he does, come September, he’ll have a chance to play a central role against his former team-turned-biggest rival.
“Honestly, man, it’s interesting, to say the least,” Carter said with a laugh. “I can’t wait to get back in Beaver Stadium, beat Penn State, do what I’ve got to do on that field, contribute to that win.”
It’s not like that game won’t be extremely interesting and intriguing without this additional subplot. This is Carter’s big and likely last chance at FBS level football. He’s been humbled. He seems to have learned from his mistakes. He is also, very likely, aware that his leash for mistakes (off-the-field) is practically none.